Photos by Rosalind O'Connor
Dance around the world
German Volkstanz might be off-limits, but never fear – there’s no shortage of other cultural traditions from which you can borrow some moves. Here are six in Berlin.
Banish thoughts of sandy beaches from your head: learning traditional Hawaiian dancing in Berlin means incarnating the wind in a basement near Tempelhofer Feld. Participants (all female, ages 25-40 or so) move to the music of calabash drums, bamboo sticks and the singing of teacher Una Brockington, who got hooked to hula on her Hawaiian honeymoon.
Explaining the lyrics, she claims flowers and birds are symbols for lovers, whereas rain is a code word for the exchange of bodily fluids. Aloha, indeed. It’s easy to master the basic steps: hips in focus, legs bent like sitting on a bar stool, but constantly in flow, learn some Hawaiian chants, and you’re there.
No special physical skills are needed. Individualists beware, though – you’re ideally in sync with the other participants like a flock of birds. Loose-fitting clothing is recommended; most wear tank tops and low-waist skirts – and (plastic) flowers tucked into their hair. HW
Tanzschule Traumtänzer, Columbiadamm 8-10, Tempelhof, U-Bhf Platz der Luftbrücke, beginners’ workshop €11/90min
You might wonder how Saxony-born Mandy Pfennig became a teacher of West African dance. The “breathtaking beauty” and “energy” is her short answer. Mandy’s a true aficionado: she’s bursting with knowledge on how Guinea, Mali and Senegal differ in their style of jumps, or how the dances evolved with decolonisation.
In one of her classes, 10 people dressed in loose-fitting clothes, mostly women aged 20-40 (only one guy!), warm up their bodies, then two drummers enter the hall and it’s time to start sweating. The basics – feet apart, bent knees and a good amount of jumping – quickly transition into more complex series including arm moves resembling bow arching and crane wings.
All you have to do here is watch and reproduce her steps and moves in rhythm – so no worries for non-German speakers. The finale – participants in a circle, clapping and providing space for improvised solo or duo performances, the percussionists adjusting rhythm to each dancer – is a captivating, contagious euphoria.
Try it for an exhaustive 90-minute, full-body experience; avoid if you’re afraid of getting close and sweaty, as you’ll also end up massaging your fellow dancers. HW
Center of Dance, Kulturbrauerei, Schönhauser Allee 36, Prenzlauer Berg, U-bhf Eberswalder Str., trial class €10/90min
A scent of sweat and talcum powder lingers in the hall, despite the open window facing an inner yard. The tunic-clad students of the ancient Indian Kathak school of dance are observed by a bronze statue of Shiva Nataraja, the Hindu god of dance, destruction and upholding the universe via meditation.
After half an hour of deafening foot percussion, wrists covered in bells like shackles, tabla drums and a repetitive harmonium tune – that makes perfect sense. Then starts the spinning: 40-something pirouettes in a row, no beginner’s exercise. Your turn! A 16-count beat is easy; five steps on four beats times three is more disconcerting. Charismatic and thorough teacher Ioanna Srinivasan, a pioneer of Kathak dance and choreography in Germany, tells you not to think but to just follow, adding flamenco-ish arms and subtle yet expressive gaze changes.
Classes are small, so you’ll get a lot of personal advice. If you have rhythm and patience, and you’re not afraid of people hearing your mistakes – they will, as each of your wrists will carry 100 bells – give it a go. HW
Academy of Kathak, Urbanstr 67, Neukölln, U-Bhf Hermannplatz, weekend workshop for beginners from €70/2x150min
Tango’s all the rage in Europe, but all that male leading seems so… heteronormative. Post-gender Berlin’s answer? Queer tango, which spices up the traditional steps with some progressive role switching.
Although a typical intermediate class consists mainly of gay and lesbian couples, instructor Astrid Weiske intends the course to be for everyone, no matter which sexual orientation. She’s been teaching since 2005, taking inspiration from several queer tango festivals that she attended in Hamburg in the 1990s. After learning some basic cross steps and turns, pupils take to the floor, switching between leader and follower without missing a beat.
For those who have never experienced a role change: don’t get tripped up, just go for it! And a quick tip for beginners: don’t worry about stepping on each others feet, just establish a connection and heed the metronome ticking in the background.
Try it out at Berlin’s fourth annual Queer Tango Festival this July, where Astrid invites interested beginners to put their aspirations into swing. MB
Queer Tango Berlin, Pfeulstr. 5, Kreuzberg, U-Bhf Südstern, group class €65/6 weeks, beginners’ workshop €50-55/2 days
Originating from native Brazilian traditions, this intense dance challenges your inner warrior, combining elements of martial arts, acrobatics and breakdance. Instructor Apollo started studying Capoeira professionally in 1988 after being “mesmerised” by the dance moves.
Don’t be fooled by his serene energy. Apollo challenges his students (an easy-going twentysomething crowd) from the start with a strenuous warm-up. You can arrive in regular workout clothes, although advanced students wear traditional abadás, a karate-esque uniform. To the beat of traditional Brazilian drums, you learn the fundamental Ginga footwork and defense squats, or caeiras where you rapidly dodge some powerful fly kicks while holding eye contact with your opponent.
Next come handstands, breakdance moves and rapid abdominal exercises. Ending the class with the traditional roda, the capoeirists form a circle where, reminiscent of The Matrix, partners dance-fight with each other, never making physical contact or causing harm as they jump, spin and bend over backwards. Requiring mastery over every muscle in the body, it’s not for the lazy or faint of heart. MB
Capoeira Berlin, Wrangelstr. 136, Kreuzberg, U-Bhf Görlitzer Bhf, group class €35/month, 2-hour trial lesson free
Originating from ancient Middle Eastern traditions, belly dance is perfect if you want to connect with the feminine power of an Egyptian queen – or just whittle down your core a bit. Coco, the founder of Essence of Bellydance, started teaching in 2006 after studying throughout Europe and the Middle East.
Beginners won’t have to worry about being judged, as the class consists of women aged 20-40 at all different levels. For those still shying away from the idea, this isn’t so much a show of women gyrating their stomachs adorned in jingling hip scarves – more like girls in yoga pants and cute Pilates bras.
Those hoping for a fast-paced cardio workout should look elsewhere: Coco’s teaching is surprisingly low-key, as you learn techniques ranging from fluid, sensual abdominal movements to staccato hip shakes, shoulder shimmies and that much-vaunted “pelvic floor technique” – a move that will supposedly take your sex life to the next level, or at least help with your posture as it forces you to work your lower body and hold your shoulders straight.
Essence of Bellydance, Rungestr. 20, Mitte, U-Bhf Jannowitzbrücke, trial class €10
Originally published in issue #129, July/August 2014.